Why I’m an Optimist about the Future of News

Reader Rhayader wants to know what I think of this David Simon story about the decline of investigative reporting Baltimore:

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

I don’t regard “so-called citizen journalists” as the be-all and end-all of 21st century journalism. There are some tasks where amateur reporting will be perfectly adequate, but there are other circumstances where only a professional journalist with a thick rolodex will get the job done. My beef isn’t with the concept of professional journalism, but with the notion that professional reporters need to be embedded in monolithic, vertically-integrated institutions like daily newspapers in order to do their jobs.

Dave Weigel

Dave Weigel

A few examples. The Washington Independent is a non-profit organization that employs serious journalists like my friends Spencer Ackerman and Dave Weigel to cover national security and Republican politics, respectively. These guys are not “citizen journalists”—they’re serious reporters who track down leads, cultivate sources, and so forth. The Windy has several sister publications, such as the Colorado Independent and the Minnesota Independent, that employ serious journalists to cover state and local news. I’ve previously discussed the work of my friend Radley Balko, who reports on precisely the sort of abuses of power that Simon writes about. In particular, he’s devoted three years to uncovering malfeasance by Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne, and he’s covered a number of other cases of wrongful convictions. Josh Marshal’s for-profit TPM media empire employs several full-time reporters, and was crucial in breaking the US attorney’s scandal. Wired employs several top-notch reporters for its website, including the good folks at the Threat Level blog, which regularly does original reporting. Similarly, CBS News recently purchased CNet, which employed top-notch reporters like Declan McCullagh.

These are the names that I can list off the top of my head. I’m sure I could come up with a much longer list if I put my mind to it. But it’s probably true that all these organizations put together still don’t employ as many serious reporters as newspapers do. Yet I think there are reasons to be optimistic. One thing holding back online journalism is that the majority of readers still prefer to read newspapers, and newspapers are still around churning out content. It’s reasonable to expect web-based outlets to experience their most dramatic growth after newspapers start failing, because that’s when consumers will be looking for new sources of content and advertisers will be looking for new ways to reach customers.

But the more fundamental reason for optimism is the basic economics of the situation. Publishing on the web is dramatically cheaper than publishing in print, and it seems extremely implausible that cheaper publishing would lead to the production of less (or lower-quality) content. As an illustration, allow me to elaborate on one possible “business model” for 21st century reporting: journalistic philanthropy. Right now, there are a handful of cities, including Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, where ideologically-inclined philanthropists have used their financial resources to prop up newspapers of their preferred (usually conservative) ideological leaning. Richard Mellon Scaife, for example, spends millions of dollars covering the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s overhead each year so it can continue offering a conservative alternative to the metro area’s leading Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Richard Mellon Scaife

Richard Mellon Scaife

This is a fantastically expensive hobby. Scaife has apparently poured between $140 million and $244 million into the Tribune-Review over the last two decades. The reason it’s so expensive isn’t that reporting or editorializing costs that much, it’s that newspapers have such high fixed costs. Running a second paper in a city that’s not large enough to support two dailies requires spending millions of dollars on redundant printing presses, distribution networks, and the like. As a result, only the wealthiest individuals can afford to subsidize a daily newspaper.

The web radically democratizes this process. If you want to start a daily newspaper, you need to be prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars doing it. But the Internet leaves a lot of room for less expensive ventures. A million dollars a year is enough to support a modest web-based publication like the Minnesota Independent with half a dozen reporters doing in-depth investigative reporting in a metro area. Even $100,000/year would be enough to pay a full-time reporter to cover city hall in a smaller town. And of course, there’s no reason the money has to come entirely from one individual—it’s not hard to imagine an NPR-pledge-drive model where ordinary citizens band together to support independent journalism.

Just to be clear, my point isn’t that non-profit journalism is “the answer” to the future of journalism, or even that philanthropy will be the most important source of support for investigative journalism. If I had to guess, I’d predict that for-profit business models will continue to be more importnat. Rather, my point is to illustrate how falling distribution costs expand the range of possible strategies for producing high-quality reporting. The barriers to entry are a lot lower than they used to be, which means a lot more people can experiment and fail cheaply.

I don’t deny that the transition to a post-newspaper news business may be rocky. There probably will be a short-term drop in the supply of certain types of high-quality reporting, as incumbent newspapers lay off experienced reporters faster than new ventures can hire them. I certainly don’t want to be seen as “dancing on the grave” of newspapers.

But I do think that the long-term result will be a stronger, more effective news industry. If you’ve spent much of your adult life working for a newspaper, it’s hard to imagine a news industry where newspapers don’t play a central role. But the fact that people have difficulty imagining alternatives is not particularly strong evidence that no alternatives exist. Instead, it’s simply a sign that the news industry is increasingly becoming a bottom-up system, and one of the hallmarks of bottom-up systems is that they tend to be unpredictable.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why I’m an Optimist about the Future of News

  1. Mike Masnick says:

    And, don’t forget, Simon undermined his own point with that article. He demonstrated perfectly well that he — not employed by a newspaper, and thus, acting as a knowledgeable, concerned, citizen — could go out and do the sort of “investigative reporting” he felt was lacking.


    It’s sort of like the people who find a mistake on Wikipedia and condemn the whole thing. And then you ask them “did you correct the mistake?” If there’s a needed gap in reporting, people or organizations can and will fill it. There’s nothing stopping them — and Simon proved that very point (while ignoring it!) in his story, but doing the investigative reporting he felt was lacking.

  2. Rhayader says:

    Hey Tim, thanks for the post on this. I’m a big fan of Radley’s, and he does a better job covering this sort of stuff than any traditional newspaper reporter I’ve ever read. I still wonder if there are enough Radley’s in the country to cover effectively at local levels everywhere, but I suppose you’re right; people have a hunger for this sort of coverage, and possible rough transitions aside, sooner or later people will be filling these gaps.

    And Mike, I think you make a good point, although it’s clear from Simon’s narrative that his former career as a reporter gave him not only the skills necessary to track down that story, but also the personal connections within the city’s institutions. As far as the skills are concerned, I don’t really see a threat; there are plenty of skilled, passionate people out there who never worked a day for a newspaper. But, as we all know, it’s often about who you know more than anything. Something tells me that if I were to go to the downtown Baltimore PD, tell them I was writing a criminal justice blog, and demand answers on the shooting in question, I wouldn’t get much besides “official statements”, and wouldn’t be able to actually speak with anyone intimately involved with the case.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I think there is a level of cronyism that has traditionally only been penetrated by proper newsmen (or, sometimes, women). But Tim is right; these things are unpredictable, and there is a supply-and-demand market for this sort of information just like there is for anything else.

  3. Rhayader says:

    Hey just wanted to swing by and point out that the recent ACORN news is a great example of the kind of reporting that can be done without the classic newspaper business structure. Not only did the story carry immediate and far-reaching ramifications, but its presentation was more direct and intimate than anything we see in mainstream news reporting, paper or otherwise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.